Popular uprisings—and how they are dealt with by the authorities—remain very much with us today: we can see some of the dilemmas playing out in Hong Kong as we speak. You’ve not only written about the Peterloo massacre in Manchester in 1819, but also chosen five other books on uprisings. In general, what would you say are the lessons of history when it comes to this kind of event?
I’ve been mostly influenced by the English example, which has tended to be protests rather than outright war or conflict. My focus has been on popular protests that have been met with violence from the state, which is not necessarily the same thing as a revolutionary war.
There are a couple of things Peterloo has taught me. First of all, any history of a protest, a conflict or a repression, has to be as much about the authorities as about the protest. In the old tradition of protest history, you tried to analyze the working class movement. You analyzed how conscious it was, how advanced it was, how progressive it was, and so on—and that would give you most of what you needed to know. But no matter how well you did that, you still had to explain, in the case of Peterloo, why there was a massacre. If people are being massacred, you don’t say, “What did they do to cause that to happen?” You look at the authorities and why they did it.
Certainly, my book, Peterloo, is about what the authorities did. It’s about the complete absence, often, of dialogue and the complete misunderstanding between the two parties. The truth lies in understanding both sides, the authorities and the people.
So when do massacres tend to occur (rather than some other kind of resolution of a protest)?
They tend to occur when there is an extreme difference in perception of the whole situation and its context between the authorities and the protesters. When you have a battle within a reasonably well understood political system, of people simply contending for very different things within a system they can both roughly understand, you don’t get massacres.
You get massacres when a colonial mentality develops or the authorities simply refuse to believe that the protesters are about what they claim to be about. The authorities are convinced there is some other motive, something else, some other disaster about to happen. It’s often as much about fear. It’s not necessarily justified fear, in fact quite often it’s imaginary fear, but you have to try to understand it nonetheless.
Are political massacres much less likely to occur in a democracy? Looking at the books on your list, they all, I think, deal with pre-democratic or non-democratic situations.
In democracies, you get heavy security, you get repression, but you don’t normally get outright massacres except as some kind of freak event. In a couple of the books I’ve chosen—Sharpeville and Amritsar—the situation is colonial. In the case of Manchester, oddly enough, there is that colonial kind of mentality as well.
Can you explain?
A colonial mentality is when the governors do not see the people that they are attempting to rule or control as citizens. In other words, they are occupants of the state or the body politic, but they have no rights, no role in it. And the attitude of the whites in South Africa or the authorities in British India at Amritsar to what they called the ‘natives’ was actually quite similar to the attitude of the authorities in Manchester to the workers. They didn’t regard workers as ever having the capacity to be citizens. So when the workers start demanding anything that looked like political power or democracy, it just didn’t compute.
Is that because in Britain in 1819, the only people who were allowed to vote or have any political power had to own property?
Yes, but not just any property. ‘Property’ signified some kind of stake in the political system. People who were simply workers, who were just feeding themselves from hand to mouth, weren’t seen to have the kind of stake in the system that would allow them to safely become citizens.
In the case of Manchester, some of the authorities had run volunteer units that had been over in Ireland and taken part in repression there. You can see similarities between their attitude to the Irish Catholic non-citizens and their attitude to the Manchester cotton-worker non-citizens.
And didn’t the outrage over what happened—and indeed the naming of the massacre, ‘Peterloo’—stem from the fact that some of the people who were injured or killed in Manchester, at St. Peter’s Field, were veterans who had fought for Britain at Waterloo just a few years before?
The great tragedy is that there were Waterloo veterans on both sides. The 15th Hussars, who were the main military force at Peterloo, had, as a unit, been at Waterloo. So had some of the reformers who were organizing the marches. One Waterloo veteran was beaten to death by the Manchester special constables, who made him run the gauntlet. They hit him with truncheons and banner poles and so on. They just couldn’t see that he was far more of a national hero and a citizen than they were.
The tragedy of Peterloo is that people who were watching each other’s backs at Waterloo were on opposite sides at Manchester.
Let’s turn to the books you’ve chosen to further explore popular uprisings. First on your list is Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre (2019) by Kim Wagner. This was a massacre in India that was a defining moment for the British Empire, with women and children fired on. Can you tell us about the book and also set out the context of the massacre for us?
The famous depiction of Amritsar is in the film Gandhi, where you have Colonel Dyer simply coming into Jallianwala Bagh, the park at Amritsar, taking a brief look, and then opening fire on what’s clearly a peaceful crowd for no apparent reason. The British then icily carry on killing people, long after there could be any possible threat, and many people were shot in the back.
“You get massacres when a colonial mentality develops or the authorities simply refuse to believe that the protesters are about what they claim to be about.”
That contains an important element of truth, something like that did happen. But what Wagner points out is that this was not just some incomprehensible atrocity. He demonstrates that Colonel Dyer, as well as the governor and those around him, all had a profound fear of Indian uprisings, dating back to the Indian Mutiny of 1857. This was a view of the Indians as natives, an uncontrollable mob. The only thing they could understand was firepower, fear and terror—and you just had to use enough of it, quickly enough, to stop the whole thing in its tracks. Wagner demonstrates in great detail how this appalling, imperial mentality operated in 1919.
Wagner also shows that this isn’t just something that happens in one day. The unrest in Amritsar was related to Gandhi’s campaign against British rule. The protesters wanted to stage a shutdown of the city in protest against restrictions on the ordinary lives of Indians.
Can you explain a bit more? Was there a protest going on, or was it just families out having a picnic in a park?
There was a peaceful protest campaign going on, because of the restrictions on movement and on trade and so on. The British were making life intolerable for people who were working inside the walled city of Amritsar. Gandhi’s supporters were developing his methods of peaceful, nonviolent resistance. So people in Amritsar had declared a day when factories would close down, when nobody would work, when shops would be closed and so on, in protest, just to show that the effect of these British regulations would be to make business and trade unworkable. As part of that protest, there was a march.
The march was fired on by the British when it reached a bridge, because the British had this idea that the natives were dangerous and just need to be taught a lesson with gunfire. Then there were Indian retaliations because of that, one of which involved the ill treatment and near murder of a white woman. That really did press British colonial buttons, because of its similarity to some of the atrocities of the Indian Mutiny. From that point onwards, the British simply perceived it as the beginnings of another Indian Mutiny, another 1857 Rebellion, which could only be dealt with by firepower.
But there were people who were just celebrating a festival there as well, weren’t there?
There was a festival going on, there were gatherings going on. But as part of their security measures in response to the events of a few days before, the British had banned people from travelling, from moving in and out of the city and they had banned all gatherings. But the gathering for the religious festival carried on, because to the people in Amritsar it made no sense at all. They couldn’t understand it. And they simply didn’t believe they would actually be fired on. It just seemed so fantastic. And that’s why there was so much shock when it happened.
So it was, in some ways, a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Brits put measures in place which they hoped would calm things down which then made things much worse. Is that a common feature in these situations?
Yes, I think it is. You certainly get that at Peterloo. The protesters are trying to demonstrate that they are peaceful, that they are citizens with families, that they are a community, but the authorities simply read the opposite into it and use force.
Why do we remember some massacres and not others? It’s not just about sheer numbers, because as you point out in your book, at Peterloo only 18 people were actually killed. In terms of body count it wasn’t that bad, but somehow it gained this broader significance.
Yes. In Amritsar the death toll was something approaching 400, it could be 600, and figures of a thousand might be credible. But it’s not the exact numbers that matter so much, it’s what Amritsar stands for: pointless, intolerable, imperial atrocities.
As Wagner points out, extra myths then get added to it: that a hundred people died in a well, for example—that’s still commemorated on the site—and that the British opened fire with machine guns. Neither is actually true. The atrocity was bad enough , but those myths play to Amritsar as a symbol of the violent exercise of imperial power, which was certainly very widespread. People fasten on this particular incident and it then gets invested with all the qualities of imperial power generally.
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I don’t think it’s wrong that that one set of atrocities comes to stand for all. In fact, it’s probably the only way we will ever, on a large scale, understand and be able to remember these things. But I do think it’s important to understand what the event really was and why it happened, without excusing it.
And I suppose that’s also what’s going on when we commemorate the events of June 4th, 1989 at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. It’s not just about that night, it’s a reminder of all the brutal repression the Chinese government has carried out over the years on anyone who is publicly in favour of democracy in China.
The People’s Army turned on the people that day, that was the symbolism there. But perhaps the Chinese government wants people to remember that, to discourage similar protests in Hong Kong and elsewhere. Is memory always on the side of democracy? We’ll probably find out soon.
Let’s move from India to South Africa now and look at Tom Lodge’s book, Sharpeville: a Massacre and its Consequences (2011). Tell me about this book and why it’s on your list of books about uprisings.
When I was writing about Peterloo, I wanted to look at other instances of massacres. Sharpeville was the obvious one. The Soweto uprising in 1976 is probably more famous now, but the Sharpeville massacre was at an earlier stage, when new apartheid policies were being brought in after 1958. There were protests in many parts of South Africa.
Sharpeville was a township some distance south of Johannesburg, not too far from Soweto. There was a protest that was essentially against apartheid, but more immediately about freedom of movement and the new pass laws.
As in Amritsar, the authorities had banned political gatherings and what was happening on the day of the Sharpeville massacre was that pan-Africanist leaders, who were a part of the resistance movement, were marching to the police station—without weapons and completely peacefully, with nothing more than umbrellas—in order to surrender themselves for arrest.
“In democracies, you get heavy security, you get repression, but you don’t normally get outright massacres except as some kind of freak event.”
They were doing that because, as at Amritsar, they wanted to bring the economy to a halt. Following Gandhi’s ideas, they wanted mass arrests which would then mean that people couldn’t work, and that the economy would grind to a halt, demonstrating how the pass laws made ordinary life impossible.
The authorities at Sharpeville opened fire on people as they were coming peacefully to surrender themselves, because they didn’t know how to handle the situation. Authorities have a mentality that it’s either obedience or it’s rebellion. It’s actually extraordinarily difficult for them to cope with non-violent resistance, where resistors are willing to break the law and suffer the consequences peacefully, but refuse to rebel or do any of the things that rebellious natives are supposed to do.
So not consciously, but in effect, the authorities had to fire on the gathering, to turn it into the sort of angry mob which they then knew how to police.
What options do the authorities have in this kind of situation? Should they just ignore it?
It’s always extremely difficult when people resist peacefully and non-violently and when they are clearly the people of the area, the citizens, and not outside agitators. It makes it hard for the authorities to use the usual weapons of force or of isolating or demonizing or caricaturing people.
We’ve got that in Hong Kong now. There are vast numbers of people protesting week after week, month after month, on an absolutely huge scale. They are demonstrating that the Chinese government doesn’t have any real moral authority in Hong Kong. The Chinese authorities constantly home in on the violence, because they simply don’t know how to cope with a large, open, mass movement. And if the protestors can manage to continue a broad-based movement that avoids at least violence against people, it’s going to be very difficult for the authorities to regain any genuine control of Hong Kong in the long-term.
And what should protesters do in these situations, based on the history? What’s the best strategy for them?
I’m a strong believer in the power of non-violence. Any gains that violence makes tend to be short-term and illusory. The gains of non-violence, of mass movements, may not be so visible at the time, but they are more enduring.
Protestors can very rarely outfight armed and organized authorities, but large numbers of people can outmanoeuvre small numbers of people in power. Violence tends to play into the hands of authorities, whereas mass, peaceful, sustained resistance is usually met by concessions sooner or later.
At Peterloo, the authorities afterwards patted themselves on the back for the way they had handled it, and regarded it as a victory.
Yes, in the short-term it was a defeat for the protestors. People on the left have said it demonstrated that the workers should have been better organized, they should have been armed, that they should have fought back.
On the other hand, if you look at how impossible the demand for any kind of democracy was in 1819, they were never going to get what they wanted. The really significant thing is what happened a political generation later. When, in 1832, there was another mass movement for the vote—okay, it was middle class-led and the bill they eventually gained was only a very modest increase in the vote for propertied people—but it was the foot in the door that, in turn, made later changes possible. In my view, the 1832 Reform Act went through because the authorities knew they could not risk another Peterloo. They could not again use armed troops on unarmed crowds. In the end the House of Lords backed down and the first Great Reform Act went through.
What was the extent of the outrage at the time about what had happened at Peterloo?
It was overwhelming and very general—from radicals through Whigs to what we might now call moderate or one-nation Tories. Essentially the government and its loyalist supporters—who were quite numerous but quite hard-line—were on one side and everybody else was on the other. The outrage over Peterloo played to a far bigger political constituency than the movement for radical reform. So that was the long-term effect of it.
We’re now at book number three on your list, which is EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. Amazingly for such a seminal work, it has not been recommended on Five Books before. How does it fit into our discussion of popular protests and uprisings?
I’d like to show you my copy, the original Penguin paperback, which is falling to bits after many years. It first came out in 1963 and the Penguin edition was published in 1968. This is a book that’s influenced me enormously. I read it as an undergraduate. I read it on the bus. I read it more than once. It’s still a perennial sell around the world.
Thompson is often referred to as a Marxist but, although he was very loosely on the Marxist left in his general way of thinking, he was a historian first and foremost. Whenever people’s experience or activities, or whatever he found in the sources, didn’t fit the Marxist line, he always went with what he found in the sources. In fact, some of his liveliest arguments were with people on the Marxist left, whom he understood but disagreed with in a waspish, very creative way. He was a continual rebel and an innovator.
The Making of the English Working Class is a wonderful book because it recreates the whole life experience of the working class at what was probably the worst time ever to be working class. This was the early 19th century, with Peterloo as its centrepiece, even though Thompson only deals with Peterloo as part of one long chapter.
Thompson is famous for recovering life as it was experienced by workers, particularly craft workers, handloom weavers and artisans in London and the West Riding of Yorkshire at the time. He sees everything through their eyes, including the authorities. He sees their attempts to gain protection, to gain a minimum wage, to gain dignity and citizenship, through their eyes. He reads what they read and he understands them from the inside. He has some wonderful portraits of handloom weaver communities, of rural workers and so on. That’s why The Making of the English Working Class became famous.
There are a couple of limitations to Thompson’s book. For one, very interestingly, although it is called The Making of the English Working Class, it doesn’t actually have a chapter on factory workers. They’re usually assumed to be absolutely central, but Thompson virtually ignores them. That’s because it’s primarily a book about the West Riding of Yorkshire, which had not yet had factory industrialization on a large scale. Thompson lived up in the Pennines, amongst handloom weavers and the woollen trade, which was a generation behind cotton in getting mechanized. He peeps over into Lancashire, but he doesn’t really talk about Lancashire as such.
My book on Peterloo looks at the Lancashire cotton workers and at Manchester. Thompson didn’t think the local politics of Manchester were very important in understanding Peterloo, but I hope I’ve demonstrated they were extremely important and that they linked to national politics as well.
The other limitation of Thompson’s book is that he doesn’t really enter into the mindset of the authorities. They’re a bit of a caricature. He’s quite insightful when he’s looking at individual characters, like Sidmouth and Liverpool [respectively Home Secretary and Prime Minister at the time of Peterloo]. When he looks at the records, he can be very sharp in his insights, but it’s not really a two-sided explanation, as I tried to go for in my book on Peterloo.
But that’s also the book’s strength, because he enters so completely into the world and the minds of the handloom weavers. It’s an unforgettable experience and having once read it, you can’t think about workers in the same way again.
Most of the people at Peterloo were handloom weavers and people from the surrounding countryside. The wars against Napoleon had just ended and life was absolutely miserable. Can you tell me a bit more about the context in which they were protesting?
It was the peak of the Industrial Revolution, when the factory system had taken hold, but there had not yet been any real regulation. The handloom weavers were in the process of being displaced by the factory system, although in fact the factory system had massively multiplied the number of handloom weavers. It was a particularly difficult, transitional stage of the Industrial Revolution.
We’d also had all the chronic booms and slumps of the Napoleonic Wars, which did as much as the ordinary trade slumps to make workers’ lives miserable. Then, on top of that, you get a double dip post-war recession. Wages plummet twice and there’s mass unemployment twice. So, as I say in the book, there was probably never a worse time to be working class than in those Peterloo years.
In that sense, although I don’t hold with a Marxist analysis, the extreme social and economic divisions were bound to cause conflict at some stage. But they weren’t necessarily going to end up with a demonstration like the one at Peterloo or a response like that from the authorities. That needs a much closer examination.
I have to say that—whether it’s India under colonialism or South Africa under apartheid—these uprisings and how authorities deal with them is a really effective prism to better understand the history. There’s an inherent drama in the tragedy that occurs, and while you’re reading about it, you learn a lot about that time and place in general. For example, in your book, you get a good sense of what’s going on in the Regency period in England, which I suppose previously for me just conjured up images of Georgette Heyer.
I use the phrase ‘Regency Manchester’ in my book because, as you say, when people think of the Regency period, it’s Georgette Heyer, it’s Vanity Fair, it’s London. It’s the south coast, it’s Jane Austen, it’s Bath, it’s Beau Brummell. The north gets the Industrial Revolution, it’s boring, it’s dismal. But with something like Peterloo, the incredible richness of the sources shows that Manchester is part of the Regency as well. It’s as varied and as exciting as anything you get anywhere else in England. The Regency happens everywhere and it’s got two sides. It’s the tension between those that’s the drama in Manchester, London and anywhere else.
Let’s move on to your final two choices. Both books are about France, which has been a bit of a hotbed for popular uprisings down the ages. Shall we start with Citizens, Simon Schama’s book on the French Revolution?
Citizens is the work that spoiled the party in 1989, the Bicentennial of the French Revolution. In it, Schama argued that the French Revolution was not the great festival of human liberty that everybody was celebrating. He got a huge amount of stick. In fact, tucked into the back of my copy of Citizens, I have an article by Schama from the Sunday Times, written at the end of the year, where he describes the reaction to his book. It begins with, “If I wanted a quiet life, obviously I shouldn’t have written Citizens. A book tactless enough to offer a critical view of the French Revolution in the year of the Bicentennial was bound to attract its fair share of criticism, but I was taken aback by the eagerness with which it was seized as a bludgeon by the warring parties of revolutionary history to beat each other (and me) over the head…History isn’t just a stroll down memory lane.” And that was a risk, that the Bicentennial would be a stroll down memory lane, celebrating all the values that people wanted to celebrate and reading them back into the French Revolution.
“Authorities have a mentality that it’s either obedience or it’s rebellion. It’s actually extraordinarily difficult for them to cope with nonviolent resistance”
What Schama demonstrates is that while the French Revolution was supposed to be about the rise of the bourgeoisie, of what was rational, what was democratic, what was modern, it was actually the monarchy that was modernising in the 1770s and 80s. It was the French monarchy that was attempting to reform its tax system, its revenue, its government, trying to create a modern bourgeois state, to tap into the wealth of the economy in a much more rational way. But the political price and the taxes that people had to pay were simply intolerable.
In a way, the French Revolution can be seen as an idealistic, nationalistic, romantic reaction against a modernizing project from above.
The other aspect of the French Revolution the book chronicles is how, once it gets going, people go absolutely crazy. It turns into a bloodbath. Isn’t that true of any uprising, that there’s always a danger that things will spiral out of control?
It’s not just out of control, sometimes it’s in the control of people who want bloodbaths and massacres and civil wars. That’s the irony of it.
The way I was taught French Revolutionary history was essentially that it was about modernizing, it was about the working class, it was about progress and rationalism and democracy and so forth. There were, understandably, excesses, but they had a lot to contend with. There was a certain amount of over-enthusiasm, and one or two wrong political lines taken, but that was understandable.
That whole narrative is exposed by Schama as a fantasy. He shows that the dramas, the murders, the civil wars, the bloodbaths were actually central to the drama. When, for example, Charlotte Corday stabs Marat, the Jacobin leader, in his bath, it’s been portrayed as a betrayal of the Revolution by an angry woman with an axe of some sort to grind. In fact, she reads a list to him, while he’s in the bath, of yet another list of plotters against the regime of the Terror that he stands for. He simply says, ‘Yes, I’ll have them up on the guillotine in a few days’ time’ and then she stabs him to death. The right of government to practise terror is absolutely central to what the Revolution is about.
In his conclusion, Schama talks about how the bourgeoisie were actually the principal victims of the French Revolution. The Atlantic economy, the textile districts, the ports, the economy of Lyon were all devastated by what happened. He says the Revolution created the judicial entity of a free citizen, some idealized person who ought to exist but didn’t. No sooner had this hypothetical free person been invented than his liberty was circumscribed by the police power of the state, and this in turn created the militarized nationalism that gave you Napoleon and dictatorship, the war against all Europe and so forth.
It was this romantic, militarized nationalism that was the legacy of the French Revolution. It was not an unintended consequence. It was the heart and soul of the Revolution. Schama sees the French Revolution as a kind of leftist populism.
These days reading Slavoj Žižek, the Marxist writer, resurrecting the old, repulsive apologies for revolutionary violence is quite extraordinary. I don’t know how somebody, in this day and age, can see the massacres, the murders, the civil wars of the French Revolution as some regrettable but necessary stage in a path to order and progress. It’s completely beyond me. We need to be on our guard against that kind of thing and I think Schama is on the side of citizenship and democracy, not Žižek.
Don’t you have any sympathy with the view that it was necessary to go through pain in order to achieve democracy in France or elsewhere?
Obviously all major historical changes and upheavals are going to involve conflict and protest and repression and struggle and there will probably be violence somewhere along the way. But I think what is achieved will always be achieved in spite of the violence and not because of it. If anybody is telling you that in order to achieve something good and democratic you have to use means which are evil and undemocratic, I would just stop and pause for a very, very long time.
I think the idea that one person’s violence is somehow necessary to everybody is extremely dangerous. I can’t think of a single instance, actually, where I would go along with that other than, perhaps, resistance to enemy occupation. Maybe in utterly impossible conditions like that.
As the last of your books on uprisings you haven’t chosen another history book, but a novel.
Novels are important, and I’ve been a bit too academic in my choices so far. I went for Germinal, by Émile Zola. During the Third Republic, Zola wrote a 20-novel cycle about the French Second Empire, so he’s looking back a generation. It’s called the Rougon-Macquart cycle and Germinal is the most famous. It was an Open University set text for decades.
It’s about a miners’ rebellion in the 1880s in France. It’s an amazing novel because Zola pulls absolutely no punches at all. He looks from the mine owners, to the more privileged miners, right down to the children working in the mines who are abused by people who might be trade unionists. It gives an extraordinary picture of the mine as this almost inhuman, machine-like development devouring the souls of everybody who works in it.
We know from Orwell’s descriptions what a completely different world mining is. Zola went to the coalfields in northeast France and went down a mine. He experienced a miner’s strike. So when he’s writing about it, it has the fine-grained feel of ordinary life, which is very far from the historical generalities that historians tend to talk about. I’ve tried to recapture some of that in writing about Peterloo, the small detail of the bottom of the heap, as well as the grand generalizations. Some of his portraits of individuals, of the workers, of the experience of going down a mine are quite vivid and extraordinary.
“I’m a strong believer in the power of non-violence. Any gains that violence makes tend to be short-term and illusory”
It’s called Germinal from the month of ‘Germinal’ in the French Revolutionary calendar. It’s the spring, the sowing, but he turns that around. The workers are appallingly badly treated. They behave with great resentment and violence as a result, and the entire strike [SPOILER ALERT] ends in disaster. An anarchist saboteur, a nihilist, sets charges and blows up the mine and it collapses into a huge hole. At the end of it the original character who is our eyes and ears—the person who walks into the area and gets the job in the mine and finds out about it—is almost the only person to survive.
And yet Germinal has been interpreted as a politically optimistic novel. Towards the end of it Zola writes that the miners, ‘passed by in a constant stream like a routed army forced to march and retreat, moving ceaselessly onwards with their heads hung low, filled with a quiet but furious rage at the thought of needing to start struggling all over again, and seek revenge.’ Well, you can read revolutionary pessimism, human pessimism or perhaps revolutionary optimism into that. The final image is the following spring, when flowers spring up in the meadow where the mine has collapsed, to symbolize the endless renewal of the human spirit and the possibility of doing better next time.
Again, towards the end, Zola writes, ‘their crumbling society had received another body blow, they’d heard the foundations cracking beneath their feet and felt the first shockwaves of tremors to come, which would grow in number until the whole rotten tottering edifice would come crashing down and disappear into the abyss like La Voreux’ (the mine, ‘the voracious one’.)
You can read what you want into that, but it’s an absolutely fantastic portrait of a strike and of a whole society at war with itself. Apart from anything else, Germinal is a great read.
As a novel, I guess it also allows you to enter more into people’s minds, their motivations, the dilemmas they’re facing, in achieving their aims. You can get into the complexities of what’s going on, rather than just theorizing about uprisings in general.
What all the books I’ve chosen have in common is that they all spend a lot of time looking at the very significant details. They don’t generalize or theorize. They do have broad visions, they do make broad points, but they do it on the basis of insights into all sorts of tiny, significant, little things that are happening, the human details, the significant details, the images, the pictures. They look at life on a human scale. They look at real things. That’s true of all five of them.
Four out of the five—with the exception of The Making of the English Working Class—also make a point of looking at the authorities pretty much equally. They analyze the whole thing in terms of the interplay between authority and power and protest and people. It’s the interplay between the two and the detail that makes gripping history and that’s what I’ve tried to do in Peterloo.
What advice would you offer to the Hong Kong protesters, in terms of getting what they want?
It’s a very dangerous thing to offer tactical or strategic advice to protesters, not least because the message received would likely be very different from what was sent, even if it was ever heeded. But in all things, it’s important to think of the longer-term, of how this will pan out, of what eventually will provide a solution. What, realistically, will success look like? And then aim for that, thinking long term, doing as little human damage as possible.
And, from the authorities’ point of view, a massacre is always going to backfire?
One massacre, or one episode of unjustifiable violence, might work in the one instance, but it will come back to you 10, 20 times over and hamper whatever it is you’re trying to do in the future. That’s true of authorities or, for that matter, of revolutionary massacres and violence from the bottom. The consequences will be visited on you not just once, but many times over.
I was talking to the Indian historian, Ramachandra Guha, about Gandhi the other day. He said that Ho Chi Minh had joked that if Mahatma Gandhi had been fighting the French, he would have given up nonviolence within a week. If you’ve got a very brutal regime, then nonviolence just isn’t going to work. Jews in Nazi Europe might be another example where peaceful resistance isn’t going to help you achieve your aims.
I think I draw a distinction between conflicts within a state and the use of military force in war or under a military occupation. That’s a different situation. But if you are talking about using violence within a state to achieve long-term political ends, then the long-term damage that does is much greater than the short-term benefits that it brings.
Yes, the concentration camps needed to be captured by force, but to slide between things like that and the notion of revolutionary violence is very dangerous. As an anti-nuclear campaigner in the 1970s and 1980s I was influenced by Gene Sharp’s The Politics of Nonviolent Action. It’s an encyclopaedia of historical examples where he argues that it’s essentially the exercise of citizenship and things other than violence that tend to bring about enduring change.
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